When the University of Georgia rejects applicants from elite suburban schools, disappointed parents often complain that their child’s seat went to a less deserving student from rural or inner-city schools, where the competition isn’t as steep.
The expectation is that A’s from rural or urban schools are easier to attain, that good grades in those schools are handed out like Skittles.
However, it turns out that those A’s do stand for something. Those impressive grades, regardless of the high school that issued them, are the most powerful predictor of college completion rates.
They signify that the students are disciplined, hard working and likely to do well in college, according to the new book “Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America’s Public Universities.”
The book stresses the importance of not only starting college but graduating, maintaining that the real payoff from higher education comes from running the last mile and crossing the finishing line.
Yet fewer than 60 percent of college freshmen graduate in four years, a tremendous waste of money and productivity.
For example, the four-year graduation rate at UGA is 52 percent; based on the 2002 entering class, the six-year graduation rate is 79.7 percent.
In sifting through data from 200,000 students at 68 colleges, the book’s authors unravel several myths, beginning with the one that the A’s in poor urban and rural high schools come easier and mean less than those awarded in tony suburban campuses.
“An ‘A’ from the fancy, affluent school is worth a little bit more, but that ‘A’ average still means something,” says Harvard research fellow Matthew M. Chingos, who co-wrote “Crossing the Finish Line” with William Bowen and Michael McPherson. Bowen is a former president of Princeton University; McPherson is past president of Macalester College.
In their research, the authors found that students with exemplary grades from weak high schools still graduate at a high rate from whatever college they attend.
Whether it comes from a struggling urban school, a sparkling suburban campus or a lackluster rural one, it seems that “a grade is a grade is a grade,” conclude the authors.
That finding is supported by research into the contentious 1997 Texas Automatic Admissions Law, which guaranteed high school graduates in the top 10 percent of their class that they could attend the state school of their choice.
The law was designed to broaden opportunities for students from rural Texas schools at the premier public institutions, which had been oversubscribed with middle-class suburban kids.
After a decade, the law continues to rankle suburban Texas parents who maintain that their bright graduates of high schools with stiff competition lose out in admissions to the state’s flagships to less qualified peers from less rigorous high schools.
However, at both the University of Texas and Texas A&M, those admitted under the top-10-percent guarantee produced higher grade point averages, higher retention rates and higher graduation rates than those not admitted under the 10 percent plan.
“Crossing the Finish Line” also debunks another widespread myth, that minority students with good grades from poor high schools are often out of their league in demanding colleges.
Not so, says the book. “Our research indicates the black male students who went to more selective institutions graduated at higher, not lower, rates than did similarly prepared black students who went to less selective institutions.”
The book’s advice: Students from all backgrounds should enroll in the most challenging university that will accept them.
Unfortunately, a surprising number of academically talented minority and low-income students bypass the better schools, often not even applying, in favor of less prestigious campuses.
“We call it undermatching,” Chingos says. “These students are not applying to a selective college that would surely admit them and where they would be more likely to graduate.”
More selective colleges provide a peer environment where graduation is the norm, says Chingos.
“If you go to one of those schools, there’s a stigma if you don’t graduate. But if you go to a place where half the kids don’t graduate, then you don’t stick out.”
Chingos says undermatching could be addressed even as school systems struggle with budget cuts.
“It’s not that it’s an easy problem to fix,” he says, “but it’s easier than fixing secondary schools.”
“If we come up with ways to help poor kids navigate the college admissions process by giving the same advantages that high socioeconomic parents give to their kids, we would improve attainment and narrow disparities,” Chingos says.
n the past, a low graduation rate was greeted as a sign of a college’s high standards, says Chingos.
“But there is mounting research that there are a lot of kids who should be able to get a college degree if they just got a little more support and better advising,” he says. “They would benefit and society would benefit.”
In reading this book and interviewing one of the authors, what struck me was the finding that the drive that makes a teenager a top student in high school, no matter the school’s quality, is the key to college success.
In Georgia, there is a bit of snobbery among metro schools toward their rural counterparts. It would be interesting if UGA could look at its data on the completion rate of top students by high school.
It is also illuminating to me that students have better completion rates at better colleges. (Please note that the studies compare kids of like abilities and grades across campuses, so it is not because the kids in those better colleges are better students.)
One of things that the book talks about is creating community in college, that students have higher completion rates when they are connected and when they have a support group . (The Posse program is a good example.)
The book endorsed honor colleges and small learning communities, which are now offered on many Georgia campuses.
I also want to note that the strategies to keep students in college duplicate the ones being discussed to keep kids in high school. It all seems to come down to giving a student a sense of belonging, a support network and a caring adult or two. That was also the topic of one of the workshops I attended last week at the UGA conference. I will write about that later in the week. (I think it is easier said than done.)
Lots to discuss here, especially the vindication of A’s at rural and urban schools. If those A averages translate to higher college completion rates because they are valid surrogate measures of good work habits and drive, then I think we have to reconsider all our laments about grade inflation.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog